When Angel Correa signed for Atletico Madrid for 7.5m euros as a 19-year-old in 2014, big things were expected from the Argentine forward.
But, even before the teenager kicked the ball for the his new side, Correa was diagnosed with a heart tumour that put his career at risk and saw him wait 16 months for his Atletico debut after immediate surgery.
Now, the pint-sized dynamo – who has often been underrated despite more than 300 appearances for Diego Simeone’s side – is finally stepping out of the shadows.
Atletico entertain Manchester United in the Champions League last 16 on Wednesday, with the likes of Luis Suarez, £100m signing Joao Felix and French World Cup winner Antoine Griezmann at their disposal. But, arguably, it is Correa who will pose the biggest threat to United.
The 26 year-old, who can play either on the right wing or as a support striker, has scored a team-high 12 goals so far this season and is starting to finally earn long overdue recognition.
However, on the whole, Atletico’s recent form has been deeply troubling. Nine defeats in their past 17 games has seen them fall to fifth place in La Liga and now sees Simeone face by far the fiercest pressure of his ten-year reign.
But Correa has been an exception, rising above the inconsistency of his teammates to win La Liga’s January player of the month award and continuing his strong form with a sweetly taken strike to cap a badly needed 3-0 win at Osasuna on Saturday.
Former United striker Terry Gibson has covered many Atletico games as a pundit for La Liga TV, and explained to BBC Sport why he is firmly among Correa’s growing band of admirers.
“He can play in different positions, he’s reliable and he’s in sensational form,” Gibson said. “He’s the ideal striker for Simeone in terms of attitude, spirit and ability.
“I remember when he joined Atletico as a teenager, I thought he could become a superstar. It’s taken him some time – he’s in his seventh season now and there were a couple of occasions when he was nearly allowed to leave. But he’s a fantastic player, he’s coming into his prime and I believe he can still become the number one striker at Atletico.”
Because of the big-name competition he faces, though, those qualities are not always enough to gain Correa a starting place – he has been in the starting side for just 20 of Atletico’s 34 games so far this season.
But Gibson insists that is certainly not a reflection of his productivity, saying: “As always happens in football, if someone is bought for a large sum of money, they tend to go above players like Correa in the pecking order.
“Suarez is a superstar on a big salary. Griezmann, Felix and even Matheus Cunha cost a lot of money, and it can be easier to leave out players who don’t have a big ego. Correa is a casualty of that because he’s not one of those who sulks if he’s not starting.”
Correa’s endlessly positive attitude, even when he is undeservedly forced to sit on the bench, can be partly explained by the fact that he nearly had to quit the game a young age.
He made a name for himself as an emerging teen talent with San Lorenzo in his native Argentina, helping the Buenos Aires club win the 2013 title.
That attracted the attention of his compatriot Simeone, and in May 2014 Atletico agreed a fee of 7.5m euros to bring Correa to Spain. However, before he could even cross the Atlantic he was diagnosed with a heart tumour, which needed surgery.
Correa’s life was not at risk but his career certainly was, and it took six months of rehabilitation before he was able to move to Atletico for light training, followed by another long wait of nine months before finally making his debut in August 2015.
After that worrying episode, Correa appears to have the mindset that anything he achieves is a bonus. He has also acknowledged that the death of his father when he was 10 years old, followed by the loss of one his brothers just two years later, also provide a long-lasting perspective and motivation.
Whether or not he starts against United on Wednesday, Correa is likely to have a significant impact on the tie at some stage – especially if he maintains his knack of coming up with big goals at crucial moments.
Although Suarez inevitably made the headlines by scorer the title-winning goal in last season’s La Liga finale at Real Valladolid, it was Correa who earlier got his team back on track with a brilliantly taken equaliser.
He also grabbed crucial goals to secure wins over Huesca and Real Sociedad during those nervy latter stages of last season’s title triumph, and has been similarly decisive in recent weeks with seven goals in 10 games since the turn of the year.
And even though Atletico as a whole are looking decidedly shaky, United cannot afford to overlook the no-longer-quite-so-underrated Correa.